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What comes before happiness? (Book Review)

written by Lisa Sansom 21 August 2013

Lisa Sansom, MAPP '10, is the owner of LVS Consulting, an independent consulting firm that helps to build positive organizations. Lisa provide services such as individual and leadership coaching, team facilitation, effective communications training, Appreciative Inquiry and change management consulting. Full Bio.

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Shawn Achor is the accomplished author of The Happiness Advantage and well-known for his TED talk about the happy secret to better work. His TED audience remembers him convincing his younger sister that she was actually a unicorn, just after she fell (or was pushed?) out of the top bunk.

So it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that Achor would choose to explore what comes before happiness in his new book Before Happiness: The 5 Hidden Keys to Achieving Success, Spreading Happiness, and Sustaining Positive Change. What are the mindsets and preconditions that are present before we can make a choice to be happy?

Achor coins a new phrase to explain what happy people, especially those who have consciously chosen to be happy, have in common: positive genius. While there are many different elements bundled up into positive genius, Achor’s book outlines the 5 hidden keys that we can all embrace and enact.

Reality Architecture

The way we see reality is not necessarily the actual reality. You may have heard that perception is everything, but perhaps you didn’t realize that you need to change your perception and recognize alternative realities if you are going to establish the preconditions for happiness. Achor presents some compelling research about stress and its effects on the body (but there’s a twist!) as well as some art lessons (go ahead – draw a coffee cup!) to illustrate how we may need to change our view of the world.

Achor encourages us to gain alternative perspectives, many of them, in order to be able to choose that reality that we wish to pursue and create. This isn’t just wishful or positive thinking. As he does in every section, Achor provides a helpful list of ways to make this exercise very practical.

Mental Cartography

With the new reality we wish to embrace, we need to figure out a way to get there. But not all maps are created equal. As Achor shows, the path that we choose has to be meaningful, properly oriented, and positively focused. There are several great stories to illustrate meaningful paths, and proper orientation includes how you place others on your map.

The X-Spot

With the new reality and a new map to get there, it’s time to set off on the journey. However Achor recognizes that this isn’t always easy. Again, he dives into the research to look at what tactics people can use to increase the likelihood that they will achieve their goals. There are ways that people see (sometimes literally, “see”) their objective that makes it appear more attainable, as Achor demonstrates for his readers.

Noise Cancelling

Here is where I had a few quibbles with Achor’s model. The overall principle is excellent: Reduce the noise so you can focus on the true signal. But that’s hard. Really, really hard. I talked about this concept with a physicist. Lesson number one: don’t talk about psychological analogies with a physicist. The scientific ways of assessing noise in physics experiments (multiple measurements, going back to the theory, double-checking your measuring tools, and so on) don’t always work in the very subjective domain of self-analysis.

The first strategy that Achor proposes is to recognize the signal. He says, “noise is anything that distorts your positive reality and distracts you from harnessing your multiple intelligences that chart a path toward your goals.” However, how do we know? Sometimes there is important signal in the noise. It may indicate that we are off course. That nagging voice in our head does have useful information sometimes! It may signal that we are veering away from our meaning and purpose. Achor seems to suggest that the signal is all positive, and the noise is all negative, but that’s not how it often works, and I felt that we were starting to go down the path of positive thinking, rather than positive psychology.

Now, to give Achor his due, he does acknowledge that negative events can be positive signals, “if they inspire action that leads to a more successful outcome,” but again, how do we know? It’s a worthy pursuit, and Achor does his best to provide tactics and tips for learning to distinguish the noise and focus on the signal, but really I think that working with an accountability partner would be the best strategy here. We’re usually too close to the situation to distinguish between true signal and the noise that we’re used to hearing and generating.

Achor comes down hard on pessimism, worry, and anxiety. He suggests some very logical ways to deal with them. But if you have ever had a serious bout of worry or anxiety about someone, you know that you can’t talk yourself out of it. You know it’s irrational, and you’re doing it anyhow. Of course you can write down things that you feel positive about, but that stupid little noisy worry is still there. You can estimate likelihoods and probabilities until your brain spits out quadratic equations, but that worry is still there. Yes, it’s noise, but it’s nearly impossible to address emotional concerns with logical rationality. I might, instead, refer readers to Dan Siegel’s work instead on Mindsight or The Whole-Brain Child for questions such as these.

Positive Inception

Positive inception might be my new favorite phrase for 2013. Maybe even for 2014 as well. If you saw the movie Inception starting Leonardo DiCaprio, you will remember that it had to do with planting ideas deep into an individual’s subconscious. Just as the role of a corporate leader is to grow other leaders, positive happy people grow their success by creating positive genius in others.

Achor shares an excellent case study about systematizing happiness and a culture of friendliness in a health care institution, with strong benefits to the financial bottom line. Certainly, this section gave me great pause about the words that I choose to use every day, with myself and with others.




Achor’s wicked sense of humor and occasional sarcasm definitely shine through in this book. There were a few times when I felt that he relied too much on personal experiences, but he is also grounded in the science of positive psychology.

Personally, as a positive psychology practitioner, I was very pleased to be exposed to some new scientific findings as Achor deliberately does not rely on the same roster of standard positive psychology researchers. It is a relief to learn of research in other related fields that can help increase happiness for others at individual and group levels.

I also wish that there weren’t the reliance on the term happiness. I know that some would say that everyone wants to be happy, and others would say that when you include the term happiness in the title of your book, you increase sales. However, I’d love to see more balance and less focus on the achievement of happiness. Achor does ensure that meaning gets some airtime, but overall well-being did not get its due voice.

I will have to muse more about the signal and noise analogy. While I feel that there are excellent suggestions and techniques in this book, I did feel occasionally that the emotional element was a little lacking. But maybe the model is that our thoughts create our emotional reality, and so that’s where we have to start. It’s a new slant for me, considering what comes before happiness, rather than the pursuit of happiness itself. Perhaps this is healthier place to start, from the inside out.


Achor, S. (2013). Before Happiness: The 5 Hidden Keys to Achieving Success, Spreading Happiness, and Sustaining Positive Change. Crown Business.

Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Crown Business.

Achor, S. (2012). The Happy Secret to Better Work. TED Talk. Includes the unicorn story.

Siegel, D. (2010). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. Bantam.

Siegel, D. (2012). The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. Bantam Books.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Unicorn courtesy of ~Brenda-Starr~
Draw a coffee cup courtesy of Wasfi Akab
Creating a map courtesy of Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts
Signal to Noise Ratio from

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jeanine Broderick 21 August 2013 - 8:15 pm


Thank you for this review. I am definitely going to purchase his book now.

I am delighted to hear him recommend understanding the nature of reality before the next steps. That is exactly what I do in my programs. Unless and until someone understands that the job of their brain is not to show them reality they believe the proof of their life experiences (which are, of course, based on their perceptions which were impacted by their beliefs, expectations, emotional stance, and focus). I am seeing amazing results with this methodology.

The second comment I wanted to make was to address your inquiry about “How do we know?”

There is a sure fire way to know although few understand it, as of yet. The research is in press. If I am allowed sufficient space I’ll cite it for you. Our emotions are actually guidance leading us away from danger and toward thriving. The biggest problem (much like the problem with the true nature of reality) is that society has it so twisted around that the signals are misinterpreted. The false premises about what the emotions are telling us are misconstrued.

When we understand the emotional guidance clearly, life becomes more wonderful than we have dreamed it could be. Not Pollyannaish, but in real experiences. It is common for people to tell me, “I want your life” and the only reason mine is so fantastic is because I understand these things. Shawn is traveling down the right path and that is exciting.

I explain the guidance in a chapter of Perspectives on Coping and Resilience and delve much deeper into it in my new book (with the publisher now) under the pen name, Jeanine Joy. Publishers sometimes change titles, so I am not releasing the title until I know what it will be.

Peil, K. (n.d.). (In press). Emotion: The Self-regulatory Sense. Global Advances in Health and Medicine, x(x), xxx-xxx.

PS: When happiness is the goal, well-being takes care of itself. By setting the right intentions all areas of our life improve including our relationships to others, our health, our success, and more. We are kinder, even to strangers when we are happy than unhappy. No one who is truly happy harms others. That deserves some thought. The definition of happiness is relevant and the definition I use is: “The state of happiness does not require a constant state of bliss. It is a deep sense of inner stability, peace, well-being, and vitality that is consistent and sustainable. Awareness that one possesses the knowledge and skills to return to a happy state, even when not in that state, is a critical component of sustainable happiness.”

Blissings to you (Not a misspelling. Defined as “Blissful blessings” (Another mission of mine is to increase the positive words in our language. Language matters.


jeanine Broderick 21 August 2013 - 8:32 pm

In reading my PS, I wanted to add further clarification.

True happiness is not about walking over others to get to happiness. It is far better for all relationships that that approach (which never leads to true happiness). True happiness requires letting others off the hook for ones own happiness, not demanding they be or do anything specific in order for you to be happy. It leads to love as described in Corinthians–something I thought unattainable until I fully understood these concepts. It requires unconditional love of others and does not demand love in return yet it does so from a place of strength where one is not debilitated when love is not returned. It is complex to understand, but it is common for people to believe the pursuit of ones own happiness is selfish and it is anything but.


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